Science fiction illuminating key ideas in social science: Two examples

I was reading The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach, and realized is is a good example of the concept of persistence in economic development.  In this case, the emperor sets thousands of worlds on a persistent path of economic activity (dominated by a peculiar kind of carpet maker), designed with institutions to discourage growth and maintain the same economic activity.  Nice sociology of a traditional economy within a market economy.  And then just today, on a long run, listening Nicholas Stern talk about Palanpur (great talk by the way) and he mentions that he and C. Bliss wanted to choose a village that was not “different” and the one of the criteria he cites? Not dominated by weavers.

I am now reading The Greatship by Robert Reed.  This is a collection of novellas.  Definitely needed editing.  But the stories and scope are so imaginative and well-done that you forgive Reed.  If you like sci-fi you should read this!

The story in the first chapter, “Alone,” introduces the Remoras.  Made me think of a particular problem in data analysis.  Many researchers are acquiring giant lists of geo-coded names (census or voter registration data) and using names to generate estimates of ethnic composition of localities.   Often machine-learning techniques are used.  But if human ethnic groups have their remoras (not atypical in West Africa) then those names are always associated with an ethnic group by location and will likely be picked up/classified as of that ethnic group.  Only the “expert” will understand the remora-nature of the subgroup.


About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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